Phishing, Malware and the IRS: Staying Ahead of the Scammers

By Eileen Day

Scammers evolve like cockroaches, seemingly never to be exterminated. A comprehensive list of every scam wouldn't be possible, but here is an overview of some of the latest tactics.


This tax season saw an increase in scams impersonating the IRS. Aggressive con artists call using fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers, making demands for immediate action. They may have personal information about their target and they usually alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling. Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are threatened with dire and immediate consequences. If the phone isn't answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request

Signs of a Scam:

  • It’s the first you’ve heard about the debt. Tax agencies don’t call, text, or email without first contacting you by mail. If you’ve never received a letter about past due taxes, the “agent” is most likely a scammer.
  • You are pressured to act immediately. Scammers typically try to push you into action before you have time to think. The government will give you the chance to ask questions or appeal what you owe.
  • Payment must be made by wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or other non-traditional payment methods. These methods are largely untraceable and non-reversible. Tax agencies don’t demand immediate payment, require a specific form of payment, or ask for credit card or debt card numbers over the phone.
  • You are threatened with immediate police or other law enforcement action.

Payroll and human resources professionals should be aware of an emerging phishing email scheme that appears to be from actual company executives and requests personal information on employees. The request may ask for a list of employees and financial and personal information, including social security numbers. Pick up the phone and call the purported sender of the email to confirm the request.

Do not reply to the email or click any links that may be embedded in the email.


The IRS has seen an approximate 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents so far during the 2016 tax season. Customers of banks and other financial institutions are also at risk.

The emails are designed to trick taxpayers/customers into thinking they are official communications from the IRS, bank, financial institution, or others in the tax industry, including tax software companies. E-mails may seek information related to refunds, filing status, confirming personal information, ordering transcripts, verifying PIN or password information, account information, or social security numbers.

When people click these email links, they are taken to sites designed to imitate an official website, such as or their bank. The sites ask for social security numbers and other personal information. The sites also may carry malware, which can infect people's computers and allow criminals to access your files or track your keystrokes to gain information.

If you receive an email claiming to be from the IRS, the government, a bank or financial institution, or tax software companies:

  • Don't reply.
  • Don't open any attachments. They can contain malicious code that may infect your computer or mobile phone.
  • Don't click any links.
  • Delete the original email from your inbox and "Deleted Mail" box.

Remember: The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media channels to request personal or financial information. This includes requests for PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.

For more information on tax scams, and to report government contacts you believe may be fraudulent, visit the IRS's website on Report Phishing and Online Scams.


Scammers are busy in many other areas. We have seen a reoccurring scam out of Florida that could come up in any state. If you have a business on file with the Secretary of State in any state, you may receive official looking notices alerting you to an important filing you must complete. Most states do require an annual corporate filing for a nominal fee. However, scammers take advantage of this to lure businesses to websites that look official in order to complete phony registrations, obtain unnecessary certificates, or otherwise demand scammed payments.

You may see what looks like an official letter from your state of incorporation, claiming that you must submit an annual filing fee to complete your "Annual Minutes," "Annual Corporate Record Forms," or receive your "Corporate Certificate of Status."

Before responding to any solicitation, verify the claim. Contact the state directly to be sure the filing is required or contact your attorney to verify the actual required filing requirements for your company.

Eileen Day is a member of the Tax, Trusts and Estates practice group. Eileen works from the firm's Minneapolis office. For more information please contact Ms. Day or your usual Stinson Leonard Street contact.

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